Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On Scarcity

I finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich this morning. I've read it in bits and pieces over the last month and have found myself captivated by the moment-by-moment optimism of Shukhov, an innocent man sentenced to ten years in a Russian hard-labor camp, by the dominance of individuality even in an environment specifically designed to strip all vestiges of personality from each prisoner, and by the kind of courage that can leave behind what should have been and what could have been for what is.

Life in the Soviet Gulag
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For those unfamiliar, the book follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, prisoner C 854, through one day in an unnamed labor camp. A great portion of Shukhov's energy is expended in obtaining food--whether through guile or through favors for others. He wastes little energy, after eight years of his sentence, on thinking about his wife and children in a countryside kolkhoz, or collective farm, nor does he bother himself with questions of right or wrong, with prayer--other than a brief thankful acknowledgement to God for the small blessings of the day--with musings on mortality, or with friendship among his fellow zeks. He loves his work, becoming so entranced with building a wall that he nearly misses the prisoner count and causes his entire squad to be punished. Among the many players within his world, he knows his place and keeps it, rendering respect to those above him and disdain to those below. There are members of the intelligentia imprisoned with him yet he displays no interest in their learned conversation, betraying Solzhenitsyn's own attitude toward the intellectual elite--ironic, since men and women who viewed the world as Shukhov did were very unlikely to read or approve of One Day but it became the banner work of Soviet liberals and intellectuals alike.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Credit: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
Solzhenitsyn was born at the peak of the Civil War in 1918, the same year the last Tzar and his family were executed, and served Mother Russia as a battery commander in WWII. After years of  keeping his mouth shut, he made the mistake of writing disparagingly of Stalin in a series of letters to a friend, who turned him in to the authorities and landed him in various concentration and labor camps for eight years. (1945-53)

Here's what I find the most telling sign of the political oppressions of the time: publication of One Day in 1962 marked the first mention in print of the forced labor camps  in Russia! Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, "for the ethical force with which he pursued the indispensible tradition of Russian literature", an event which caused him to be exiled from the Soviet Union.

He coined the now-predominant term "GULAG" for the Soviet system of forced labor which began under Stalin after WWI and did not fully end until Gorbachev's time. Numbers vary, but it is believed that over a million persons lived and died in these camps.

Growing up in the conservative Christian tradition, I often pondered whether I would stand firm for my faith under the threat of torture or martyrdom. I find the same self-searching mood is born from reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and that I am unsure how I would act were I to find myself in a similar situation to the protagonist. If bread were scarce, would I share my only crust with my husband, my child? I like to think I would. But we don't know, living as we do in the fullness of Western plenty, how our essential selves would crumble under a cruel regime.

I am thankful I do not have to face these trials today, and hope for fortitude should I do so one day. Scarcity of anything is a fearsome thing.

1 comment:

Seedsower said...

It is indeed. I, too, hope that I would choose love over life. But some days I wonder if I really would be as strong as I want to be...